Sharks get hammered


AT the final session of the CITES talks, the meeting withdrew protection for the porbeagle shark, reversing the only decision made at the 13-day meeting to protect a high-value marine species. It denied Appendix II status to the cold-water porbeagle, fished mainly for its meat.

Appendix II requires countries to monitor and report all exports, and to demonstrate that fishing is carried out in a sustainable manner. Other proposals to oversee cross-border commerce for three other sharks – scalloped hammerhead, oceanic white tip and spiny dogfish – were earlier shot down.

Millions of hammerhead and white tip are extracted from seas each year, mainly to satisfy a burgeoning appetite for sharkfin soup. Only decades ago, the two species were among the most common of the semi-coastal and open-water sharks. But incidental catch and demand for fins has slashed populations by 90% in several regions.

The fish are often tossed back into the water after their precious fins have been sliced away.

The scalloped hammerhead is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “vulnerable” globally, while the white tip is “critically endangered” in the north-western Atlantic, and “vulnerable” elsewhere.

Once the highest level of biomass in the Gulf of Mexico, the white tip is 99% depleted there today, according to marine biologist Julia Baum.

Japan led opposition to the four measures, arguing that management of shark populations should be left to regional fisheries groups, not CITES. China, Indonesia, Singapore and other nations that benefit from the trade in shark fins joined the opposition to the proposals. Conservationists counter that fishing for sharks is currently unregulated.

“The problem today is not there is serious mismanagement of trade in sharks, as for tuna, but that there is no management at all,” said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.

The scientific panel of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommend protection for all the species except the spiny dogfish which, along with the porbeagle, was also voted down at the last CITES meeting in 2007.

Fished for its meat not its fins, stocks of porbeagle – which gestates for nine months and can live up to 65 years – have collapsed to about 10% of historic levels in the Mediterranean and the northeast Atlantic.

Conservation groups reacted angrily to the four “no” votes.

“It appears that science no longer matters,” said Elizabeth Griffin of wildlife conservation group Oceana, based in Washington. “CITES is not fulfilling its obligation to protect species threatened by international trade.”

Gus Sant, a shark expert at wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC said: “The decision not to list all of these sharks is a conservation catastrophe. The current level of trade in these species is simply not sustainable.”

All told, a third of the world’s 64 species of pelagic, or open water, sharks face extinction, according to a report issued last June by the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group. – AFP

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